When It’s Just Too Much: Developing Empathy and Compassion for Teaching Your Child with Special Needs

When It’s Just Too Much Develolping Empathy and Compassion for Teaching Your Child with Special NeedsIn the week we waited for genetics to get back to us with a diagnosis (when our son was born), I made the mistake of looking things up online.

I researched his disorder and within seconds, I was a weeping mop on the floor.

I read about the delays that we could expect, as well as some medical issues he could experience.  However, what affected me most were the details about his behavior as he’d get older – it would be especially prevalent in boys.


Self-injurious behavior.

Head banging.




The words scared the living daylights out of me.

But, like everything else at that time, I tried to focus on the present moment.  The articles talked about children as they got older.  I had a baby to look after and it would be ages before I’d have to deal with all of that scary stuff.

Besides, I thought, they can’t possibly be talking about children who grow up in a loving home, with loving parents, and with plenty of therapy in their pocket.  These must be the reports of children who grew up in institutions – with little attention and no parental affection.

Six years later, I am finding myself dealing with the realities of those reports.

Head banging (and I don’t mean the rock-and-roll kind, I mean on the floor)

Biting (of self and others – if you’re not careful)

Scratching (of self, until he bleeds and is left with a body full of scabs)

Hitting (of self, in the face, in the forehead, with a fist and with his knee)

I am finding myself at a loss.



I am finding myself wondering what went wrong.  We did it all with so much love and attention.

I’m finding myself wondering where my baby boy went.  The one with the smiles and laughter that would melt your heart. The one who loved to snuggle.  The one who loved to “sing” at night when he awoke and could not fall back asleep.

Where is that child?

Instead, I have a frustrated, fussy, inconsolable child.

I am defeated most days.  Afraid of what he’ll do to himself.  Constantly on the look-out to protect him from himself.

While the situation is a difficult one, I also find that putting myself in his shoes is of great comfort.

I ask myself:

  • If I didn’t have the words to express what I wanted, how would I feel?  How would I react?  What would I want most?
  • If I weren’t feeling well, but couldn’t have others understand exactly where it hurts, how would I feel?  How would I react?  What would I want most?
  • If I were hungry, and craving a certain food, but couldn’t tell my own mother, how would I feel?  How would I react?  What would I want most?

Chances are, the answers to these questions would be: I’d feel frustrated, I’d have a meltdown because it’s the easiest way to get everyone’s attention, and I’d want to be loved and cared for most of all.

The same is true about homeschooling.

Rather than feeling defeated, worried and afraid about what will become of your child when he just doesn’t grasp certain concepts, ask yourself:

  • When I don’t understand something, how do I feel?  How do I react?  What do I want most?
  • When I can’t learn a new skill no matter how hard I try, how do I feel?   How do I react?  What do I want most?
  • When other people understand a new concept, but I am forever clueless about it, how do I feel?  How do I react?  What do I want most?

Chances are, the answers to these questions are: I feel frustrated, I [curse and then] shut-down, and I’d want to be accepted and encouraged most of all.

If you haven’t done so recently, join new class, read a book about something entirely foreign to you, take on a new challenge.  Put yourself in your child’s shoes as a learner.


Whether your child has a short-term memory issue, a sensory processing disorder, an auditory processing disorder, or any other challenge, you need to be asking yourself the same questions:

  • If I were in his shoes, how would I feel?
  • How would I react?
  • What would I want most?

The last question is the key to planning your goals/ lessons when things just get to be too much.

What challenges have you been dealing with lately that have left you feeling defeated as a parent and homeschooler?


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When It’s Just Too Much: Developing Empathy and Compassion for Teaching Your Child with Special Needs

2 Responses

  1. Gabriella, I am sending you big hugs and a whole bunch of high fives for being an incredible mom. You are clearly so full of love & caring for your son. Looking at life through their eyes is such a great way for us to be thoughtful & understanding parents.

    I feel defeated as a homeschooler when I have to discuss my homeschooling situation with “outsiders.” We aren’t following a set curriculum. We don’t have a daily schedule. My sons aren’t testing at grade level in every subject. Even though deep down I know that I am doing what works for our family and that all members of my family are happy & growing, it is a challenge to feel confident in our life whenever I have to defend it.

    Catherine February 3, 2014 at 11:31 am #
    • Thank you for the hugs and sending high fives right back at you!

      Oh, boy! I understand that having to justify homeschooling piece. Luckily, this community is growing, and more and more people know at least one family who homeschools. The gap is getting smaller and that’s good news in terms of having to defend ourselves. Keep going with that gut feeling that this is what your family needs to be doing. When I get asked if we’ll be homeschooling forever (which is such a challenging question to answer since I don’t know what I’ll have for dinner tomorrow), I always respond with, “We take it day by day. Right now, this is what works best for us. Next year is next year.” Even though you don’t have to explain anything to others, it’s nice to have a go-to answer that is both non-threatening and honest.

      The question about an educational program is difficult for others to understand because of what the school system has taught us over the years: there is a set program and we have to follow it in order to succeed. What people don’t realize is that the program is set (and works somewhat) because there needs to be some order when classroom sizes are of 25+ students. But, if we work at a much smaller ratio, why wouldn’t we individualize our teaching to match what our children are interested in and thrive in? Sometimes, it just takes a little explanation for the logic of it be understood.

      As for daily schedule – that’s the absolute beauty of homeschooling. We can work with how the brain works. Some days are highly productive and we get a billion things done and it might even appear to be structured somewhat, and other days, the brain needs some down-time, we take things easily and it might look like chaos. I just love the balance of it all.

      Thanks for this comment, Catherine! As you can tell, I’m so passionate about this topic. I don’t ever want to change what people choose for the education of their children, but I do like to have them see that we’re not exactly being lazy about this decision either (when they inquire about it). I have found that most people are intrigued because it’s so foreign to them, and they are often more supportive after they understand our philosophy of education. It’s all in shifting a paradigm.

      Good luck!

      Gabriella Volpe February 3, 2014 at 2:24 pm #